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School choice for the disadvantaged

Vouchers in school reform programmes in the United States have made little headway over the years - mainly due to opposition from powerful teachers' unions. Professor Paul E. Peterson reminded us in this week's Friedman lecture that it wasn’t Milton Friedman who first championed school vouchers , it was our own J.S. Mill who in 'On Liberty’ wrote ‘If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one. It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them.’ School vouchers are generally regarded as a reform measure of interest only to the political Right (Milton Friedman and others). However, Peterson drew attention to thinkers on the left who are sympathetic to the idea of using vouchers to help the disadvantaged gain access to the best schools. More often than not disadvantaged families have to send their children to the worst sink schools, sustaining the cycle of disadvantage. Some have a way out now in the States with access to Charter schools (around 5% of the student population in the States are now in Charters). There are some notably good charter chains (as well as some not so good) and Charters appear to have had a significant impact in certain areas on attainment (New Orleans, etc.). Professor Paul Peterson pointed to evidence that Charter schools have a positive effect on attainment particularly with disadvantaged students. He also highlighted some of the more robust evidence that exists on the effects of vouchers on attainment. Professor Peterson has tracked the impact of a voucher programme all the way from kindergarten (in 1997) to college enrollment (in 2011). His study compared students who won a voucher lottery with students who didn't—the only difference between the groups was the luck of the draw, the gold standard in research design. The study shows that an African-American student who was able to use a voucher to attend a private school was 24% more likely to enroll in college than an African-American student who didn't win a voucher lottery. The voucher programme took place in New York City. Its initial impetus came in 1996, when Archbishop John J. O'Connor invited New York City schools Chancellor Rudy Crew to "send the city's most troubled public school students to Catholic schools." That didn’t quite work out but a group of private philanthropists—including prominent Wall Street figures Bruce Kovner, Roger Hertog and Peter Flanagan stepped into the breach —creating the New York School Choice Scholarships Foundation. The foundation offered three-year scholarships—that is, vouchers—worth up to $1,400 annually (in 1998 dollars) to approximately 1,000 low-income families with children of elementary-school age. A recipient could attend any of the hundreds of private schools, religious or secular, in New York City. The city's largest provider of private schooling was the Catholic archdiocese, which reported average tuition at the time of $1,728 per year. Total expenditures at these schools, from all revenue sources, came to $2,400 per pupil (compared to total costs of more than $5,000 per pupil in the public schools). Over 20,000 applicants participated in the lottery. Of the 2,666 students in the original study, necessary information was available for over 99%. To see whether those who won the lottery were more likely to go to college, Peterson and his research colleagues linked student Social Security numbers and other identifying characteristics to college enrollment data available from the National Student Clearinghouse, which collects that information from institutions of higher education attended by 96% of all U.S. students. The reserachers said that they were not aware of any other voucher study that has been as successful at tracking students over such a long period of time. Although the study identified no significant impact on college enrollments among Hispanic students (and too few white and Asian students participated for us to analyze), the impact on African-American students was large. Not only were part-time and full-time college enrollment together up 24%, but full-time enrollment increased 31% and attendance at selective colleges (enrolling students with average SAT scores of 1100 or higher) more than doubled, to 8% from 3%. These impacts are especially striking given the modest costs of the intervention: only $4,200 per pupil over a three-year period. This implies that the government would actually save money if it introduced a similar voucher program, as private-school costs are lower than public-school costs. The difference in the effects for African-American and Hispanic students is probably due to the greater educational challenges faced by the African-Americans. Only 36% of them went to college if they didn't receive a voucher, compared to 45% of the Hispanic students. Patrick Watson

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